Cancer's Grand Central Station

Merrimack Pharmaceuticals acquires Hermes Biosciences in deal to develop systems biology-driven therapeutics for cancer

Kimberely Sirk
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—In a marriage that brings together a novel scientific approach with a targeted system to deliver drugs, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals Inc., recently announced its acquisition of California-based Hermes Biosciences Inc., a private biotechnology company based in South San Francisco.
Hermes, founded in 1998, specializes in targeted drug delivery technologies for therapeutic and other biomedical applications using lipidic nanocarriers and antibodies as targeting agents. Those methods enable drugs to more readily attach to undesirable cells within the body, such as those in cancer.
Dr. Daryl Drummond, Hermes' director of liposome research and development, says what made the merger so attractive was Merrimack's expertise in antibody engineering and systems biology. 
"Hermes was more focused on the nanocarrier development for both small molecule and nucleic acid-based therapeutics, while Merrimack was focused on its systems biology approach to identifying novel targets or therapeutic approaches, and its development of therapeutic antibodies against those targets," Drummond says. "They were in need of our drug delivery system to broaden their capabilities, while we were in need of the targeting ligands used to direct those delivery systems and the processes for identifying the best therapeutic strategies." 
It was interesting expertise to Merrimack, says Kathleen Petrozzelli, associate director of Communications for Merrimack.


"We were very interested in their delivery technology and thought it a good fit with our network biology techniques," Petrozzelli says.

Drummond agrees that the two systems fit together well.
"Together, we combined several critical pieces of the puzzle, and both sides thought it was a very good fit for broadening and strengthening the potential therapeutic approaches that could be developed by a combined company," he says.
Merrimack's proprietary Network Biology platform applies techniques from the fields of computational modeling, high-throughput biology and engineering to understand cell system dynamics and develop therapeutics to address cell malfunctions in a disease state.
The expertise was developed with the help of leading scientists from MIT and Harvard, and enables the high-throughput profiling of protein networks as a basis for improved validation, lead identification and speed in the development of innovative, effective and well-tolerated therapeutics. The company focuses on the discovery and development of novel treatments for cancer and autoimmune disease. Merrimack was founded in 2000 in Cambridge.
Its first two oncology pipeline candidates, MM-121 and MM-111, are currently in clinical development. MM-121 is a first-in-class ErbB3 antagonist, and MM-111, a bi-specific antibody targeting ErbB2 and ErbB3. Both candidates are in Phase I development and are expected to enter Phase II this year, and have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or any international regulatory agency, and are the result of other Merrimack partnerships.
Company representatives describe this new partnership as a way of future honing in on the ErbB3 pipeline, which one person called "cancer's Grand Central Station," and finding a drug that can specifically target the way the cancer is impacting the patient at the cell level. The therapy in development by Hermes, it is thought, will someday save doctors valuable time by honing in on specific drugs that can impact patient-specific cancers with the best chance of cellular success. Drummond concurs with that assessment.
"Generally," he says, "we will work on the development of novel and rationally designed antibody targeted lipidic nanocarriers against validated oncology targets."
Hermes will soon cease to exist under the deal, and its five employees and company founders have been offered positions at Merrimack's Cambridge headquarters. The company began as a partnership between cancer physicians and scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, with the express purpose of developing lipidic nanocarriers to allow for targeted delivery of small-molecule drugs, including chemotherapies, with the goal of improving cancer treatment safety and efficacy.
Hermes' lead candidate, MM-398, is a nanoliposomal formulation of CPT-11 that is currently in Phase II trials with a partner for multiple cancer indications (under the designation of PEP02). Merrimack expects to initiate clinical development with the next Hermes product candidate, MM-302, an antibody-targeted lipidic nanocarrier for cancer therapy, in 2010.


Another very attractive aspect of the merger to Hermes was Merrimack's experienced leadership team, Drummond adds, as well as the proven track record of that team in identifying and developing new drugs, attracting quality financing and partners, and

 growing their business.

"That team," says Drummond, "had both a short-term and a long-term vision for the future of the combined company that was attractive to Hermes moving forward."

Kimberely Sirk

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